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January 31, 2010

Pre-Race Sleep

Written by Dena Evans

Everybody’s been there: sleepless on the night before a big race.

Countless articles and anecdotal stories have been shared on this topic. Certainly, Focus-N-Fly’ers probably have an entire wing to add to the library. However, it takes a little bit of time to become comfortable and game plan your race “eve” strategies. When you do this game planning, here are some key pieces of info to keep in mind:


Everyone’s sleep needs are slightly different. One person’s 7 hours of sleep is not sufficient for another who may need 8. Try to accomplish what is normal for you – not an arbitrary number.

The overall pattern of sleep is more important that one night. If your whole week of sleep was good except for the last night, you can console yourself while staring at the ceiling that you will be fine at the starting line.

Some, such as Tim Noakes, MD (author of The Lore of Running) preach that the “night before the night before” is the key night of sleep. Some others say, “just get one good night of sleep within the last three nights and you’ll be ok.” This is probably decent advice, but if possible, it is better to have built a pattern by doing some of the following:

  • As much as busy schedules allow, avoid exercising or eating right before you want to sleep. Try to allow at least four hours after exercising before bed.
  • Eat familiar foods the night before a race, ones you know have a high likelihood of digesting in an orderly fashion
  • Your best bet is to develop a rhythm of rising and going to bed at about the same time each night, so your body learns to expect that pattern
  • If you plan to race in a different time zone (1-3 hours different, NOT necessarily 10-12 hours different), try rising slightly earlier or later for several days running to prepare your body for the time change required by travel
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, or non-drowsy medication near bedtime
  • If you are battling sleeplessness, don’t just lie there – get up and do a low-key, mind-numbing activity requiring little emotional engagement for a while before trying again. Tension from frustration does not help the situation! Coach Dena travels with the latest issue of the Economist for this very reason (and she’s not kidding).
  • Ambien or Tylenol PM are tempting solutions to this problem because they seem like an “easy fix”.  The far better scenario is to avoid any potential sluggishness and other side effects, by building a strong sleep bank the old fashioned way.
  • Many times, long, hard efforts such as a marathon will cause sleeplessness, even as you are extremely fatigued. Expect this, and try to give yourself a goal of a week or so to return to your typical pattern after the race.
  • Sleeplessness/ insomnia WILL, over time, affect your ability to train hard and recover quickly from that training. Sustained insomnia also may be a symptom of overtraining (regardless of your experience level) and should be taken seriously, particularly accompanied with unexplained deteriorating performance in workouts.

In every other way, your big race date is marked in bright ink on the calendar.  If concerned about your sleeplessness the night before, build an argument like an attorney trying to prove your readiness beyond a shadow of a doubt.  With a strong pattern of sleep habits built over the entire training cycle, you can both convince yourself effectively that those few hours need not unduly affect the outcome, and maybe even achieve the peace of mind that might also help you actually fall asleep!